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Roundtable – Moving Beyond the Two Linguistic Solitudes


One of the challenges we face as a discipline is the linguistic divide between French- and English-speaking historians in Canada. In a 2009 essay on this issue, Magda Fahrni encouraged historians of Canada to engage with the particular histories of Quebec What can we learn from those historical journals and research teams that have successfully straddled this language divide? How might the CHA better bridge francophone and anglophone historians?

On Monday 21 November 2022, eight of Canada’s top bilingual historians met virtually to discuss “Moving Beyond the Two Linguistic Solitudes,” the third roundtable and sixth event in the Canadian Historical Association’s Virtual Workshop and Round Table series.

Chaired by Matthew Hayday of Guelph University, five groups were represented by seven scholars: Magda Fahrni of University of Quebec at Montreal represented herself; the Montreal History Group, featuring Sylvie Taschereau of the University of Quebec at Trois Rivières and Brian Gettler of the University of Toronto; the Urban History Review Group, featuring Harold Bérubé of Sherbrooke University and Nicolas Kenney of Simon Fraser University; Histoire Sociale/Social History, featuring Nicole Neatby of Saint Mary’s University; and the Centre d’histoire des regulations sociales featuring Cory Verbauwhede of the University of Quebec at Montreal. Donald Fyson and Emmanuel Hogg sent their regrets.

Fahrni opened by reiterating a plea she made thirteen years ago for historians in the Rest of Canada (ROC) to engage more extensively with the history and historiography of Quebec. Fahrni noted two vital points. First, that the histories of Quebec and the ROC are both “entangled and distinct,” and are grappling with similar issues in 2022, like decolonizing the curriculum (“autochtonisation”). Second, that all new historiographical challenges – decolonization, gender, ecology – are inflected by language and nation. The language divide, Fahrni reminds us, is a “vector of power” – with English as the more powerful side.

Sylvie Taschereau of the Montreal History Group noted their organization has been going for sixty-five years, in which time it has fought to recognize the reality of the French language in Quebec, while encouraging members to read, follow presentations, and perform discussions in both languages. Though Taschereau admits members don’t agree on everything, a relationship based on mutual respect and confidence helps minimize the language barrier. Brian Gettler noted how different concepts resonate differently in the two language and traditions – race, for example, has “very different freight and baggage” in French than it does in English. This isn’t to dismiss cross-linguistic discussions of these subjects, Gettler says, since thinking about what we mean in different contexts by the same words and concepts can be extremely fruitful. Taschereau ended with a plea to build more bridges between the two communities, beginning with more translation and help for researchers working the two historiographies.

Harold Bérubé of the Urban History Review Group admitted worrying about what language he would speak in. “If I spoke in French, would anyone understand?” he wondered, revealing “an asymmetry that’s fundamental in bilingualism,” that power relations always favour English. In the Urban History Review’s fifty years, Bérubé notes there is coexistence between the two languages, “but not always dialogue.” He stressed the importance of having both French and English editors for the review, which will reflect on the work submitted. Nicolas Kenney, who teaches mainly Anglo students in French in Vancouver, would like to widen the scope of historical discussions to routinely using French and English in the same workshops. Though not everyone will understand, “it’s important to accept this discomfort,” he argues. “The students are there,” he said, “it’s our job to continue this fight for French.”

Nicole Neatby of Histoire Sociale/Social History (HS/SH) argued there is a gulf (“un fossé”) between the two linguistic communities. She notes that only 17 per cent of reviews in Canada are bilingual, and that it’s been a long time since the sustained bridgebuilding that existed after the war. Though the two communities can usually understand each other and the results of each other’s research, they still seldom work together, resulting in parallel historiographies. HS/SH tries to bridge these gaps by publishing roughly one third of their articles in French, and encouraging English reviewers for French works, and vice-versa.

Finally, Cory Verbauwhede presented on how, “It Takes a Team to Bridge Two Solitudes.” He pointed out that the term “two solitudes” goes back to Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote about two solitudes meeting, protecting, and greeting each other in love – not living apart. Verbauwhede noted Quebec historians in both languages tended to cite across the linguistic divide, but outside of Quebec, Anglo scholars cite almost entirely anglophone authors. There are also fundamental differences in historical interpretation that continue to separate the two solitudes: for example, Anglo historians tend to argue the BNA stood for a highly centralized state, while French historians tend to see a looser confederacy. Both these interpretations affect later historical debates, like over the building of Canada’s social safety net.

In all, this lively and stimulating debate reinforced the ideal we all need to work together to bridge the linguistic divide, and to remedy the power imbalances between those who work in French, in English, and in both languages.

The recording of the roundtable is now available on the CHA YouTube channel.